Article — From the November 1998 issue

The Radioactive Boy Scout

When a teenager attempts to build a breeder reactor

( 3 of 6 )

The force hidden in the atom will be turned into light and heat and power for everyday uses. Chemists of the future, working with their brother-scientists, the physicists, will find new ways of harnessing and using the atoms of numerous elements—some of them unknown to the scientists of today. Do you want to share in the making of that astonishing and promising future?
—The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments

Like Michael, few people whom David confided in understood what he was doing. Ken Hahn, who had taken chemistry courses in college, could follow some of what David told him but thought he was exaggerating for attention. “I never saw him turn green or glow in the dark,” he says. “I was probably too easy on him.”

It probably didn’t feel that way to David. Although Ken is immensely proud of David’s experiments now that they have a certain notoriety, at the time they represented a breakdown in discipline. As fathers are wont to do, Ken felt the solution lay in a goal that he didn’t himself achieve as a child—Eagle Scout. As teenagers are wont to do, David subverted that goal.

In addition to showing “scout spirit,” Eagle Scouts must earn twenty-one merit badges. Eleven are mandatory, such as First Aid and Citizenship in the Community. The final ten are optional; scouts can choose from dozens of choices ranging from American Business to Woodwork. David elected to earn a merit badge in Atomic Energy. His scoutmaster, Joe Auito, who lives on a rural road an hour or so north of Detroit and who resembles an aging Deadhead rather than the rock-ribbed conservative I’d expected, says he’s the only boy to have done so in the history of Clinton Township Troop 371. David’s Atomic Energy merit-badge pamphlet was brazenly pro-nuclear, which is no surprise since it was prepared with the help of Westinghouse Electric, the American Nuclear Society, and the Edison Electric Institute, a trade group of utility companies, some of which run nuclear power plants. The pamphlet judiciously states that America is a democracy and “the people decide what the country will do.” The pamphlet goes on to suggest, however, that critics of atomic energy were descended from a long line of naysayers and malcontents, warning that “if America decides for or against nuclear power plants based on fear and misunderstanding, that is wrong. We must first know the truth about atomic energy before we can decide to use it or to stop it.”

David was awarded his Atomic Energy merit badge on May 10, 1991, five months shy of his fifteenth birthday. To earn it he made a drawing showing how nuclear fission occurs, visited a hospital radiology unit to learn about the medical uses of radioisotopes

Individual atoms of an element have the same number of protons in their nuclei. This "atomic number" determines the element's chemical properties and position in the periodic table. The number of neutrons within atoms of the same elements can vary, however. Known as isotopes, these variations have unique physical properties because the number of neutrons affects the atom's mass. Most elements have at least two naturally occurring, stable isotopes. But isotopes of heavier elements (those with more protons) are often unstable. Called radioisotopes, and often artificially produced, these nuclei undergo some form of radioactive decay—alpha, beta, or gamma—to become more stable. In alpha decay, the nucleus loses two protons and two neutrons, thus transforming into another element two atomic numbers below it on the periodic table. In beta decay, either a neutron is converted into a proton, and the atomic number rises, or the opposite occurs, pushing the atomic number down. Gamma radiation—in which energy is emitted but no transformation occurs—can accompany alpha or beta decay (where the atomic number falls) or can occur on its own. Americium-241, for example, is a radioisotope of americium. Its atomic number is 95, its atomic mass number is 241, and it becomes neptunium-237 through alpha decay.

and built a model reactor using a juice can, coat hangers, soda straws, kitchen matches, and rubber bands. By now, though, David had far grander ambitions. As Auito’s wife and troop treasurer, Barbara, recalls: “The typical kid [working on the merit badge] would have gone to a doctor’s office and asked about the X-ray machine. Dave had to go out and try to build a reactor.”

What is a breeder reactor? This simplistic description comes from a publication that David obtained from the Department of Energy (DOE): “Imagine you have a car and begin a long drive. When you start, you have half a tank of gas. When you return home, instead of being nearly empty, your gas tank is full. A breeder reactor is like this magic car. A breeder reactor not only generates electricity, but it also produces new fuel.”

All reactors, conventional and breeder, rely on a critical pile of a naturally radioactive element—typically uranium-235 or plutonium-239—as the “fuel” for a sustained chain of reactions known as fission. Fission occurs when a neutron combines with the nucleus of a radioisotope, say uranium-235, transforming it into uranium-236. This new isotope is highly unstable and immediately splits in half, forming two smaller nuclei, and releasing a great deal of radiant energy (some of which is heat) and several neutrons. These neutrons are absorbed by other uranium-235 atoms to begin the process again.

A breeder reactor is configured so that a core of plutonium-239 is surrounded by a “blanket” of uranium-238. When the plutonium gives off neutrons, they are absorbed by the uranium-238 to become uranium-239, which in turn decays by emitting beta rays and is transformed into neptunium-239. Following another stage of “radioactive decay,” neptunium becomes plutonium-239, which can replenish the fuel core. The nuclear industry used to tout breeders as the magical solution to the nation’s energy needs. The government had opened up two experimental breeders at a test site in Idaho by 1961. Amid great fanfare, in 1963 Detroit Edison opened the Enrico Fermi I power plant, the nation’s first and only commercially run breeder reactor. The following decade, Congress appropriated billions of dollars for the Clinch River Breeder Reactor in Tennessee. Hopes ran so high that Glenn Seaborg, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission during the Nixon years, predicted that breeders would be the backbone of an emerging nuclear economy and that plutonium might be “a logical contender to replace gold as the standard of our monetary system.”

Such optimism proved to be unwarranted. The first Idaho breeder had to be shut down after suffering a partial core meltdown; the second breeder generated electricity but not new fuel. The Fermi plant—located just 60 miles from Clinton Township—was plagued by mechanical problems, accidents, and budget overruns, and produced electricity so expensive that Detroit Edison never even bothered to break down the costs. In 1966, the plant’s core suffered a partial meltdown after the cooling system malfunctioned; six years later the plant was shut down permanently. In 1983, when it was estimated that completion costs would deplete much of the federal budget for energy research and development, Congress finally killed the Clinch River program.

If he knew of such setbacks, David was in no way deterred by them. His inspiration came from the nuclear pioneers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: Antoine Henri Becquerel, the French physicist who, along with Pierre and Marie Curie, received the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1903 for discovering radioactivity; Fredic and Irene Joliot-Curie, who received the prize in 1935 for producing the first artificial radioisotope; Sir James Chadwick, who won the Nobel Prize in physics the same year for discovering the neutron; and Enrico Fermi, who created the world’s first sustainable nuclear chain reaction, a crucial step leading to the production of atomic energy and atomic bombs.

Another role model, similar to David in temperament, was the Englishman Francis William Aston. He invented the mass spectrograph in 1920, which he used to identify more than 200 isotopes. As a child, writes Richard Rhodes, Aston "made picric-acid bombs from soda-bottle cartridges and designed and launched huge tissue-paper fire balloons. . . ."

Unlike his predecessors, however, David did not have vast financial support from the state, no laboratory save for a musty potting shed, no proper instruments or safety devices, and, by far his chief impediment, no legal means of obtaining radioactive materials. To get around this last obstacle, David utilized a number of cover stories and concocted identities, plus a Geiger-counter kit he ordered from a mail-order house in Scottsdale, Arizona, which he assembled and mounted to the dashboard of his burgundy Pontiac 6000.

David hadn’t hit on the idea to try to build a breeder reactor when he began his nuclear experiments at the age of fifteen, but in a step down that path, he was already determined to “irradiate anything” he could. To do that he had to build a “gun” that could bombard isotopes with neutrons. David wrote to a number of groups listed in his merit-badge pamphlet—the DOE, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the American Nuclear Society, the Edison Electric Institute, and the Atomic Industrial Forum, the nuclear-power industry’s trade group—in hopes of discovering how he might obtain, from both natural and commercial sources, the radioactive raw materials he needed to build his neutron gun and experiment with it. By writing up to twenty letters a day and claiming to be a physics instructor at Chippewa Valley High School, David says he obtained “tons” of information from those and other groups, though some of it was of only marginal value. The American Nuclear Society sent David a teacher’s guide called “Goin’ Fission,” which featured an Albert Einstein cartoon character: “I’m Albert. Und today, ve are gonna go fission. No, ve don’t need any smelly bait and der won’t be any fish to clean. I mean fission, not fishin’.”

Other organizations proved to be far more helpful, and none more than the NRC. Again posing as a physics teacher, David managed to engage the agency’s director of isotope production and distribution, Donald Erb, in a scientific discussion by mail. Erb offered David tips on isolating certain radioactive elements, provided a list of isotopes that can sustain a chain reaction, and imparted a piece of information that would soon prove to be vital to David’s plans: “Nothing produces neutrons … as well as beryllium.” When David asked Erb about the risks posed by such radioactive materials, the NRC official assured “Professor Hahn” that the “real dangers are very slight,” since possession “of any radioactive materials in quantities and forms sufficient to pose any hazard is subject to Nuclear Regulatory Commission (or equivalent) licensing.” David says the NRC also sent him pricing data and commercial sources for some of the radioactive wares he wanted to purchase, ostensibly for the benefit of his eager students. “The NRC gave me all the information I needed,” he later recalled. “All I had to do was go out and get the materials.”

More from Ken Silverstein:

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada


October 2019